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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Why Performance-Based Pay for Teachers Makes Sense

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator

Up until now, I have stayed away from hot-bed political conversations but I am now right in the middle of one: Performance-based pay for teachers. I am currently managing a grant to implement performance-based compensation systems in ten charter schools and the fun is only beginning.

When I was a teacher, terms like career ladder, merit pay, and performance-based compensation were prevalent and I was intrigued about how teachers could be paid differently. It always bothered me that all teachers got the same pay, but didn't all do the same level of work. This seemed to be the immutable law and if a teacher wanted more money, they either stayed in the district for as many years as they could endure, or they applied to another district with a higher pay scale.

Later I discovered that this law was not so firm as I originally believed. When math, science, or ESL teachers were in short supply, all of a sudden, they were offered signing bonuses, language differentials, and hard-to-staff-position stipends.

To me, this opened the door to the idea that some teachers are more important than others, at least to the hiring officials. Conversations about career ladders, or master teacher positions popped up and then disappeared just as fast. But in my heart of hearts, I always felt teachers deserved to be paid according to their efforts.

A Value-Added Score

I have heard all of the arguments against performance-based compensation: creation of rivalry and competition, bad feelings and envy, strife and hostility are all predictions of what comes out of performance-based compensation plans. I know of several school districts in Texas that refused to participate in the state sponsored performance-based pay plans because they wanted to avoid the predicted negative consequences and didn't want the hassle, or didn't think they could design a system that is fair.

My feeling was that it is money for the teachers and the classified staff, why not let them have it? I figured the hassle of designing a system that approaches fairness was worth it if it put more money in teachers' pockets.

The lack of fairness was always brought up as an excuse. What about the teachers who teach the gifted kids, or worse, the ones that get the stupid kids (yes, I said it), or a teacher who inherits kids from poor communities, bad teachers or bad schools the previous year? Nobody could answer those questions until we looked at business and borrowed from them the concept "value-added."

In the last few years, state governments have been experimenting with performance-based compensation plans. A few have incorporated the concept of value-added education which means that the teacher measures the level of the students knowledge and skills at the beginning of the year, then at the end of the year, and the difference, hopefully positive, is what "value" that teacher added to those students. Now we have something that is fair.

So I ask, what is the complaint about performance-based pay system?

As a last resort response I always got, "I didn't become a teacher because of the money. I am a teacher because of the kids. If I wanted the money, I would have become a doctor or lawyer." Aside from being stereotypical, this answer always bothered me. Why not work for free then? Why worry about striking for fringe benefits and increased salary? Of course it is about money! Every teacher could use the money.

It wasn't until recently that I understood that the real concern about performance-based pay was not about the money at all. It is about performance of the teacher. Performance is shown when each individual student's progress is connected directly to his or her particular teacher or set of teachers. Based on how much the student learned, as demonstrated by the pre- and post- tests, a teacher will be assigned a value-added score. Teachers won't be able to blame the prior school-year teacher, nor the parents, nor society as some have done. If the score is low, it is either the kids are stupid, or the teacher is ineffective. We know that kids are not stupid, so...

How can a union protect a teacher from remediation, sanctions, or dismissal if the data shows clearly that the teacher is ineffective with the current students? It can't. And the traditional role of the union will have to change if it is to exist, just as the traditional role of the teacher must change.

What are your thoughts regarding performance-based compensation for teachers? I look forward to your comments.

For the counterpoint to this blog, check Gaetan Pappalardo's blog Elementary Educator Asks: Does Merit Pay Turn Kids into Zombies?

Ben Johnson

Administrator, author and educator
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John Robinson's picture

There are three issues with your logic regarding value-added schemes. You assume states use a pre-test and post-test model. That is not true. North Carolina tried a pre-test and post-test model for its End of Course tests but abandoned it when it was discovered to be costly. Instead, they use some kind of magical statistical formula to determine growth using two very different tests. Secondly, what about the teachers who teach in untested areas? How are you going to determine their "value-addedness?" You also ignore the reality that classroom and school populations are rarely stable. Students come and go. Performance pay is a business idea that those who have never spent a day teaching classrooms seem to think it will be the system savior.

Joe Huber's picture

I do believe what you say, and I agree with your statement that kids are not stupid, but what about those that choose to be. Cameron's post above strikes a chord especially in these current times when school work is not a concern. What about those parents who don't support the teachers, don't care of their kids do the work and don't care if their kids fail? What failsafe is in place to assist teachers in a merit-pay situation that face these challenges.

Your major point also relies on the assumption that the best teachers produce the best students. Is this ALWAYS true?

This brings up my point: At what time do the schools start to change? I am an innovator and risk-taker in the classroom, but that can only go so far in a system that has remained the same for hundreds of years. We are pushed to differentiate instruction. When are we going to differentiate the assessment of BOTH the teachers and the students?

Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.
Facilitator 2014

This is another assumption that teachers can fix kids. Even though a pre-test and post-test should will show growth, don't you think it's still a test. Don't you think teachers will still teach to the test, which will promote mediocre thinking? How can you measure the caring nature of a teacher? or resourcefulness? Or creativity? You just can't test being a human. What about poverty and single-parent homes? Teaching and learning is just too complex to measure with one idea or evaluation. Just can't be done.

John Bennett's picture
John Bennett
Emeritus Faculty in the School of Engineering / University of Connecticut

Clearly, you have experience together with an honest desire to find a perfoance-based assessment procedure for teachers. There indeed is much to like about your suggestions. And yet, as typically happens, the comments have raised issues that have at least some merit. What to do?

What too often happens is that the people with the control make the decisions - usually ignoring the concerns in the interest of "doing something." And of course without buy-in, the outcomes are predictable.

My suggestion: Invite any and all interested parties to work proactively on a solution with an expected timeline to completion. The only stipulation is that each must commit to work toward a solution acceptable to all, a solution that can and will be implemented. As Covey has demonstrated, people committed to finding what he calls "the third alternative" will find a better solution than anyone started out thinking was the best.

Andrew Walanski's picture

A couple of things here:

1. You have fallen into the trap of wanting to do something that intuitively might make sense, but science has proven is wrong. Science has shown that using a carrot and stick approach to motivate people is ineffective, and often actually leads to worse performance. I could go into detail, but just look up Herzberg, Maslow, DeCharms, and Self-Determination Theory. That should be plenty to get you started.

2. Value added systems rely on tests--standardized ones. How many awesome standardized tests do you know about? How many of them are accurate and reliable measures of student academic growth? Should a student's social-emotional learning and growth be taken into account? All you're doing is taking the same high stakes system--that has shown to be ineffective--and attaching bonuses to them. Honestly, I think encouraging more teaching to the test should be avoided at all costs. It's bad for kids.

3. Why don't we just pay teachers what they deserve in the first place? I think most of us agree that they don't (at least not in the State of Arizona), yet we are always talking about teachers as the ones who need additional contingencies placed on their performance. You ever heard of a doctor who only gets paid if that particular surgery is successful?

4. Your comment about teachers being in it for the money is insulting, and wrong. A countless number of teachers sacrifice their own economic well-being everyday because of their commitment to kids. A countless number of people (even teachers) willingly donate their time for FREE to help education. Yes, even teachers would like to be able to buy a house someday, have enough money to raise a family, and maybe send their kids to college. When we get to the point where we are actually helping teachers do that, then we can talk about bonuses.

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